McIlroy incurred two penalty strokes – penalty subsequently reversed!

Rory McIlroy incurred a two-stroke penalty at Liberty National last week, but the penalty was subsequently reversed!


Friday, McIlroy played hole 14 (par-3 hole) and his ball ended in the greenside bunker. He thought he saw a loose stone lying right behind the ball, so he grabbed it to remove it. Immediately after he realized that it was not a stone but a clump of sand.

McIlroy called for a Rules official, and after a few questions and calls, he was told that it was a two-stroke penalty:

Subsequently the penalty was reversed, though, with the reasoning that there was no improvement.

The Rules of Golf.

Let us try to find out what the Rules of Golf says about this very interesting situation:

  1. Rule 12.2b. A player is allowed to intentionally touch the sand in a bunker with his/her hand, as long as it is not with an intention to test the sand. Since McIlroy’s intention not was to test the sand, he did not incur any penalty under this Rule.
    1. Under the same Rule: You are not allowed to touch the sand right in front of or right behind the ball with a club, but it is OK with a hand (as long as it is not with an intention to test the sand).
  2. Rule 8.1. Under this Rule you are not allowed to improve certain “forbidden areas” (such as the area of your intended swing or your intended stance). (Intention is irrelevant – you are penalized no matter if your intention was to improve or not.) So that is why McIlroy was asked whether or not there was an improvement of one of these areas.
    1. According to GolfDigest, McIlroy answered: “I’m comfortable saying that I didn’t improve anything”.
    2. McIlroy furthermore stated, that he did not lift the clump; he merely touched it.
      1. For me it looks like on the video that he lifted the clump with two fingers, and that he looked at his hand right after that (to see what it was), but it is not clear from the video – thus we must trust his word, that he did not lift it.
    3. Therefore, since there is no improvement, there is no penalty.
      1. If you touch a clump of sand, often it would break, and thereby you could discuss whether or not there is a penalty – see below. I am unaware, if they asked him about that or considered it.
    4. If he had removed it or crushed it:
      1. The starting point would be, that there is a penalty.
      2. BUT: The improvement is not big. The Definition of “Improve” states, that it is only an illegal improvement, if the player “… gains a potential advantage for a stroke“.
      3. Interpretation 8.1a/1 and 8.1a/2 give some examples of when there is a “potential advantage”. And the conclusion must be, that tiny improvements are allowed.
      4. Thus: No penalty to McIlroy since the improvement was tiny.

For geeks.

A clump of sand: Is that a loose impediment? It seems like USGA would say “no”, since there is no penalty for improving a forbidden area, if the improvement is caused by the player when removing a loose impediment. In other words: Since they would even consider penalizing him under Rule 8.1 they must think it is not a loose impediment.

The Definition of “Loose impediments” states that Loose impediments are…”Any unattached natural object such as…Clumps of compacted soil (including aeration plugs)“. But the definition also states that “Sand and Loose Soil are not loose impediments“. I would interpret this to mean that all sand is not loose impediments – even if it comes in clumps (otherwise they should have written “Loose sand and loose soil”).

Feel free to let me know in the comment section below (“Leave a reply”) if you agree or disagree! (Would McIlroy have been penalized under Rule 8.1, if he had removed the clump of sand with his club)?


PS: By the way please notice how polite McIlroy was, and that he did not at all got upset, when he was told about the penalty. Class act. Many other players could learn from such a behaviour.

  1. Howard says

    I agree with your well-stated analysis 100%. But I’d like it even better if one of the ruling bodies would endorse it.

  2. Conor maguire says

    It was a tough call for the rules official, but common sense prevailed, there was no intent to improve but an interesting situation.

  3. Nancy Laframboise says

    First if he was not Rory but player 170, would the penalty have been reversed?
    He had no way to know if it was a stone without trying to move it. The next time he and everyone else will take a closer look. At amateur club level the rules are still too complicated in details and it prevents many players from participating in club events.

    1. oliver schick says

      Totally agree Nancy.There should be Amateur and Pro rules. As a way of simplifying or improving the game, the 2019 changes were an abject failure

  4. Dagbone says

    I believe this question hinges on whether McIlroy had a legitimate reason to suspect that the clump may have been a loose impediment. In this case, I would give him the benefit of the doubt, because a harsher conclusion would require actual evidence (not just mere suspicion).

    USGA Rule 8.1b(11) states: “In preparing for or making a stroke, a player may move a natural object to see if it is loose, and there is no penalty even if doing so improves the conditions affecting the stroke.”

    This seems to be a fairly clear indication that McIlroy did nothing wrong and should not have been penalized.

    However, the Rule goes on to state: “But if the object is found to be growing or attached, it must stay attached and be returned as nearly as possible to its original position.”

    I don’t think this clause applies, because the sand clump was neither growing nor attached. Consequently, I don’t think McIlroy was required to return the clump to its original position (which would have been practical impossibility).

    All in all, I see no clear Rules violation, so I think the reversal to “no penalty” is warranted.

  5. Mike King says

    Agreed. To me a clump of sand would be like mud on a ball. Under normal circumstances he would not be able to clean the mud on the ball.

  6. Carolinepeacock says

    Yes he would be penalized if he moved sand behind ball with club in bunker

  7. Len Alliston says

    A sensible conclusion to this incident. From the replay it is clear that McIlroy was not looking to gain an advantage and it is often very difficult to conclude without touching the object whether it is compacted sand or a loose impediment.
    It also supports the central principle of player integrity as emphasised in the 2019 Rules.

  8. Colin MacGillivray says

    Bunkers should be a normal part of the course with no special rules just like “waste areas”.
    The precedent is there already.
    No thought is required by the rules makers.
    Deleting the bunker rules makes the game faster, easier, less complicated and more fun.

    1. Howard says

      While your suggestion in some ways has its merrit, I wouldn’t like it if players were permitted to drag sand away from the back of their ball resting in a bunker with the player’s backswing, or permitted to ground their club directly in front of or behind their ball in a bunker. IMO a bunker should remain a special place, as is the putting green and teeing area.


    The decision to reverse two – stroke penalty for Rory Mcllroy is justified because the player realized the mistake and brought it to the notice of Rules Official. The player’s integrity and good conduct must be respected with priority. Secondly the improvement was tiny and the player did not gain any potential advantage as far as Stance or Swing is concerned.
    Rule 12.2 a/b : A player is allowed for reasonable touching of sand and especially in this case, Mcllroy lifted the clump of sand in two fingers which clearly shows the instant thought process of the player and again the instant feeling of Stone or Loose Impediment.

  10. terry commane says

    i think we should take Mcllroy word and move on

  11. RulesGuyInNewHampshire says

    IMHO, where the rules fall down is when they penalize something that does not provide an advantage. Doing something that will not improve your swing or the outcome of the shot should not incur a penalty.

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